Prioritizing Your Own Well-Being Should Be Top Priority for Doctors

by Jen Barna MD | Physician Burnout, Physician Coaching, Physician Retention, Physician Wellness, Work Life Balance, Work Life Integration


Prioritizing your own wellness and achieving the right work-life integration specifically for you should be at the absolute top of your to-do list.


If your son or daughter said to you, “Mom/Dad, I have 16 hours in the day when I’m awake. Doesn’t it make the most sense for me to spend all of that time only doing things for other people, and never spend any time doing anything for myself?” I’m fairly sure I know what your answer would be. You’d say something like this to them, “Absolutely not!! It’s so important that you make the time to take good care of yourself and explore life, and live your life! Make time to find and do the things that bring you joy.” 

This makes perfect sense when we are talking to the ones we love, so why don’t we look at it that way for ourselves? Well, it’s because we’re conditioned to think that if we take time to care for ourselves, we’re being selfish. We think of time as finite (which it is, of course), and our subconscious calculates an equation: More time spent on me = less time spent helping others.

As human beings, we’re designed to serve, but we should remember that we also need to maintain our energy, focus, and physical wellness in order to be of service. When the scales are unbalanced too far in the direction of serving, we inevitably pay insufficient attention to our own individual needs, and we end up paying the price in terms of our happiness, our relationships, and our physical health. 

When we think about our values as healthcare professionals, they’re likely to include concepts like integrity, service, and honesty. It’s really common among physicians, other clinicians and those in caregiving professions to think that if we’re not consumed in some action or service for someone else, we’re not exemplifying our values. In fact, this is probably one of the major contributors to burnout for doctors and other healthcare professionals.

Only seeing our value in terms of service to others is not sustainable in the long term. Our tanks eventually empty faster than we’re filling them, and we may become resentful of the work we do and the people we’re trying to help. We wouldn’t want that life for our dearest friends or family, and we shouldn’t accept it for ourselves.

A great analogy to create clarity around this is that of an emergency situation on an aircraft, where the oxygen levels drop. We all understand that we have to put our masks on first before we assist anyone else, because if we don’t ensure that we have enough oxygen, then we won’t be able to survive in order to take care of the other passengers who need our help. By the same token, if we don’t care for ourselves, both mentally and physically, and carve out time to do what we enjoy and spend time with the people we love, our ability to do our jobs well will be adversely affected. 

The human experience is actually diminished by the belief that we must spend every waking minute doing for others, and in fact, that lifestyle is not sustainable. If we live this way, we don’t get a chance to nourish ourselves. Over time, we can become resentful of the situation we find ourselves in, no longer feeling energy for the people we care for and those whom we love, and this leads us in the opposite direction of where we want to be, leading us away from our values. 

So, how do we carve out the time from an overbooked schedule to practice self-care without feeling like we’re being selfish? 

Firstly, we need to reframe the way we look at the value of our time. As workers in caring professions, we often think that time not spent helping others is of lesser value. Time spent prioritizing our own care and time spent prioritizing the care of others both need to be working in concert, and integrated with each other in a more balanced and synergistic way. They are both deserving of equal attention. When this happens, everyone benefits in the long-term — not just ourselves, but also our patients and our families. We see this come up again and again with our coaching clients, and one question our coaches ask is, “What if you treated yourself as well as you treat those who you love the most in the world? How would that shift your decisions and priorities?” 

A fun way to play with reframing our priorities is to develop a reward system for ourselves. For example, for every task you do that you find tedious or boring, such as doing your charting or writing a paper for publication, plan to reward yourself with some time on your calendar to do something that you enjoy, and schedule it. You may schedule some time on the golf course, to cook dinner with a friend, to take a walk in the woods, to paint, make music, or to have a massage. Make your own list! Whatever is on the list for you, you can then begin to look forward to the tedious tasks, as they provide a path toward increasing time doing the things that nourish your soul.

I know the work you do is important to you. You’ve devoted so many years of your time and energy into becoming the expert that you are. You likely feel that this is your life’s work and your calling, or maybe sometimes it seems that feeling is slipping through your fingers. It is critically important to recognize that you must actively carve out time for yourself, because nobody else is going to do it for you.

If I want to leave you with one thought today, it’s this: Prioritizing your own wellness and achieving the right work-life integration specifically for you should be at the absolute top of your to-do list. Everyone who counts on you needs you to do this.


Board-certified practicing radiologist, founder and CEO of DocWorking, and host of top ranked DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast

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